GSM review - Nokia 6820 smart phone in the boating environment
Using a Nokia 6820 GSM smart phone for coastal cruising -
review of GSM for marine use ...
by Adrian Biffen, January 1, 2005
The original AMPS analog cellphone system is slowly being phased out in North America, so I decided it was time to consider replacing mine. Although I have also had a TDMA digital phone for 3 years, I've never been impressed with its performance, so I kept my original Motorola Startac analog phone because it offered the best voice quality and range that I could find. I always operate on the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" principle, and I was determined not to upgrade until there was a service available that was clearly superior to the analog system. In fact, I often felt like I may just be the only person left on the continent that uses an analog phone. I used a special cell modem to connect it to the net for email, and although it is slow, it will work where others fail. I also have a Globalstar CDMA satellite phone for backup, when I'm in an area where nothing terrestrial works; you can see my satellite phone review here.
The North American cellular battlefield has 2 basic competing technologies, TDMA and CDMA. The TDMA system (Time Division Multiple Access) crams more users into the crowded wireless spectrum space by sharing time slices of the same frequency, such as those moments when you're not actually talking (it happens very quickly so you don't really notice). The CDMA approach (Code Division Multiple Access) uses a 'spread spectrum' technology whereby coded/decoded frequency hopping techniques are employed as a method of sharing the airwaves. Arguably, CDMA is a superior technology, but there are other reasons to consider TDMA.
GSM (Global Standard for Mobile) technology is actually a type of TDMA, and is used in about 80% of countries worldwide. The US market, up until now, has been dominated largely by CDMA technolgy on the one side vs TDMA PCS technology on the other. If you've ever been to Europe or Mexico and discovered that your phone doesn't work, it's because those countries use primarily GSM technology.
GSM also includes the accompanying data service, GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), an 'always on' internet system. I can access and respond to email and web pages directly on the phone, and I can also use the phone as a modem, connected via the wireless Bluetooth system to my laptop for a full display and surfing experience. I also have a cable connection to my laptop, should the Bluetooth connection ever fail.
When I'm out cruising in my sailboat, if I anchor in a cove surrounded by high rocks, I can hoist my phone up to the top of my 45' mast to improve the modem reception, while I sit down in the salon in front of the fireplace, surfing the net - and it works very well! The wonderful Bluetooth technology makes many things possible ...
This article covers the reasons behind my decision to choose GSM / GPRS, and the subsequent purchase of my Nokia 6820 smartphone. Although lacking in some features (no kitchen sink or airbags), this little gem is a modern miracle of technology packed into one very small and convenient package. It has transformed my daily routine and improved my life immeasurably. I no longer have to lug my laptop around with me all the time; I can now respond to my email and even surf the net right on the phone.
I would have bought it just for the ability to respond to my email with the full fold-out qwerty keyboard, but it offers much more than that. Another very significant factor is the SIM card (Subscriber Identification Module) - a personal identity card that creates the ability to move from carrier to carrier with an unlocked phone, depending on where you get the best rate and service. Finally, we get a way of having sensible competition between GSM service providers, and no more huge bills from roaming charges.
The RF sensitivity of this unit is outstanding, and shows good signal strength in a weak signal area, in a side by side comparison with another phone that doesn't show any reception at all. It is important to hold it at the base and not let the top of the phone (where the antenna is housed) come into contact with anything, but otherwise it will pull in a signal where you couldn't get any before.
I also really like the ability to back up the entire memory contents of the phone to my laptop, with the provided software. If I ever lose the phone, or it breaks, I can get another phone and immediately restore the memory to make it fully functional. That includes contacts, addresses, phone numbers, configuration, pictures, video ... everything that is in the phone
(yes, it's also a camera/camcorder too, albeit limited picture quality).
Speaking of breaking, I have managed to drop the phone on the floor several times, with no apparent change in performance whatsoever.
The included software, Nokia PC Suite, also provides plenty more functionality, such as a contact synchronizer, file transfer utility, music editor, etc. It is a slick piece of software that works very well.
My decision to use GSM was based largely on the ability to roam freely in different countries, and the recent commitment by ATT to expand their GSM system at home was no small factor. Then the ATT - Cingular merger took place, further expanding the available network, which solidified my decision. I will be discussing both network issues and phone capabilities in this series, including the data capabilities of the GPRS system. The faster EDGE (EGPRS) data bearer system is currently being deployed in our area, and I'll be reporting on this too.